Most traditional winter crops are root vegetables, such as potatoes, beets, onions, carrots, turnips and garlic. Cabbage, a green, leafy vegetable, is a unique exception to this rule. It is also more versatile than pretty much any other vegetable — you can serve it cooked, raw or fermented.
Back in pre-supermarket days, when people lived off of their root cellars and fresh, local chlorophyll was in short supply for many months of the year, cabbage was a vitamin-rich lifeline. Today, even though we have many other options this time of year, winter is still the best time to eat cabbage, because now is when it is the sweetest. I have some farmer friends who grow literal tons of it, and they say the period after the holidays is when they sell the most. So now, at the height of its season, it’s time to have a cabbage session.
The crunchiness and durability of raw cabbage make it useful in many ways. It can provide texture to fish tacos, a floating garnish on soup or bedding for a sandwich. But in a salad, it isn’t for everyone, because we don’t all want to give our jaws a workout when we eat our vegetables.
Cooking is one way to bring out the soft side of cabbage, and I have a recipe for cabbage Parmesan to give you. But first, I’m going to borrow a trick often used for kale salad and tell you how to tenderize raw cabbage by massaging it.
Like eggplant or chicken Parmesan, or pizza, for that matter, the core of this dish is the interaction among the tomato, bread and cheese. One could say the cabbage happens to be in the right place at the right time, but it adds body and sweetness while melting right in and quietly carries the dish. As with other Parmesan-esque dishes, this one is even better the next day.
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups chopped onion
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes or other tomato product (I use my frozen sauce)
1 2-pound cabbage
1 tablespoon fresh thyme (half that amount if dried)
1 tablespoon oregano (ditto)
3 cloves of garlic, cut crudely
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon ground pepper
8-inch section of baguette, preferably sourdough, or that amount of another white bread, cut into 1-inch cubes
1½ cups Parmesan, grated
Heat the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed or deep skillet with a tight-fitting lid and sauté the onions, along with any meat and/or mushrooms you may wish to add, on medium heat. While that’s happening, toast the bread chunks under the broiler on a cookie sheet. Watch them carefully and don’t let them burn!
Once the onions cook down (about 10 minutes), add the tomatoes, oregano, thyme, garlic, salt, pepper and garlic powder. Fill the tomato can with a cup of water, swirl it around to catch the remains and add it to the pot.
While the onions and tomatoes simmer, cut the cabbage into “noodles.” Slice off the amount of cabbage you need and lay it face down on the cutting board. Cut it into pie-like wedges, slicing toward the center from various angles on the outside of the hemisphere. The cuts should be about ½ inch apart.
Add the cabbage to the pot and cook on medium heat for about 30 minutes with the lid on until it is tender. Add the bread cubes and cheese and stir everything together as gently and briefly as possible. Toss a final sprinkle of cheese on top, cook for another 5 minutes and turn off the heat. Let sit, covered, for about 10 minutes, then serve.
Massaged cabbage salad
Kneading tough cabbage leaves with salt helps break down their fibrous structure and turns them silky. Roasted walnuts add texture, sun-dried tomatoes add tartness and grated Parmesan or Romano cheese adds boldness.
Serves 4 (That being said, I can eat an entire batch myself.)
1 2-pound cabbage
1 teaspoon salt
Juice of one lemon (about 3 tablespoons)
½ cup walnuts
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 clove garlic, pressed or minced
½ cup sundried tomatoes
½ cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
½ teaspoon ground black pepper
Remove the tough outer leaves and cut out the core. Slice the cabbage in half, lay the flat sides on the cutting board and chop into ½-inch strips.
Place the cut cabbage in a large bowl. Add the salt and lemon juice. Toss and squeeze the cabbage, working the salt and juice into the leaves, until they are soft and limp and the volume has reduced considerably.
Allow the massaged cabbage to marinate in the salt and lemon juice while you lightly toast the walnuts on medium heat until they are lightly browned and fragrant but not burnt. Allow them to cool.
While the nuts cool, add the oil, garlic, sundried tomatoes and cheese to the cabbage and toss it all together. Add the nuts, toss, taste and season with more salt if needed. Serve garnished with black pepper and more grated cheese.
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